Beautiful guns plus

I very nearly used Libby’s not unkind but perhaps too accurate term “gun porn”, but quailed at putting it in the title,  fearing just what search engines might send people here. The Stephen Grant 16 is all cleaned up– mechanicals by John Besse, wood by me– safe to shoot, and pretty– now I must decide what else if anything to do to bring it back to life. One set of numbers suggests it was made in 1868, but given its signs of being a converted pinfire, I must wonder if that was when it was converted. But the fine scroll is a mostly 1870 (and later) characteristic.

It really is a BEST gun though– airy balance right on the hinge pin. Adding removable Briley Titanium tubes in 28 wouldn’t get it to 6 pounds!

Here it is with its fellow 16’s– a square- backed Browning from FN in its first year of production, a 30’s Belgian guild gun made for Stoeger in the 30’s and sold at Abercrombie to my friend Gerry, or rather his grandfather, when he was 13, Soon afterwards, his mother took it over and shot enough Yankee grouse with it to shoot it loose. Look how much deeper a typical Anson and Deeley action is than that of a back action sidelock.

 And with its sister English gun, my amazing 4 pound Thomas Turner .410. Recently the Field has published an article suggesting Turner was one of only six provincial makers who made their own actions. If this is true it makes this rare long- stocked .410 even more unusual.  I already knew they were specialist makers of lightweight guns, not just .410’s.


On “Best” guns, from the delightful Westley Richards Blog:

“…the very best work is still done by men with files and chisels and, by definition, best work is what a best gun is about. When asked about the difference between making guns and making best guns, Tom Wilkes made the observation  ‘it all comes down to time and control of the tool, doesn’t it’?”

Deep Springs digest

Last week.

The roads in and out are ridiculous…

The valley bottom is dry…

 Though the irrigated land is rich.

We searched for Bufo exsul at the springs, but it was too cool…                                         

 Eli is as ever adventure kid.

 We had fun, especially Libby.


Brad has reminded me of the late great impossible Barry Hannah. An almost random quote (sometimes I think he wrote only quotable phrases):

“Walthall bought an ancient Jaguar sedan for nothing, and when it ran,
smelling like Britain on the skids or the glove of a soiled duke…”

Found Data

From The Eskimo Cookbook, Shishmarek Alaska, 1952:

 “Soured Seal Liver:

“Soured seal liver is made in the summer here. Place liver in enamel pot or dish and cover with blubber. Put in warm place for a few days until sour.

“Most boys and girls don’t like it. Only grownups and old people.

“I don’t like it.”

“Loon Soup:

“Take off feathers and clean the loon. Wash, and put into cooking pot with plenty of water. Add salt to taste.

“Do not make the loon soup.”

Found– no, SENT- image

From Toby Jurovics, a Titian, early 1500’s:

“Giorgio Cornaro with Falcon celebrates Giorgio Cornaro the Younger’s election into the Maggior Consiglio or the Great Council of Venice. “

I had never seen it, and wrote to Toby that I preferred it to the better- known Holbein of Sir Robert Cheseman with a Gyr. Henry 8’s courtiers were a cold and tight- lipped lot; I sometimes think his must have been a more opulent version of Stalin’s. We also agreed that the food must have been better in Venice.

Book Review #1: Blood on my Hands by Gerry Cox

Gerry Cox — the “G” is pronounced hard as in his ancestor Gerhard — was an administrator at Cornell until recently. In his previous life he was an English professor, who back in the 70’s at least once wrote for the scholarly journal English Literary Renaissance, where I was an editor.  He is also a third generation bird hunter, a big game hunter,  and, most unusually for an academic, a custom rifle maker who once made me an early 20th Century sporter on an SMLE action. As is perhaps obvious, he is also a friend of mine. But that’s not my reason for recommending his book.

Below, Gerry left, John Besse right, in John’s shop in Mag looking a Scott sidelock, once mine, now G’s; SMLE in the style of Empire .

Many of the remaining northeastern hunters started with whitetail deer, and have never progressed beyond the lore of that species. Gerry started late, shooting an antelope in southeast Wyoming after a lifetime of bird hunting. Before his experience, he shared the attitude of many – dare I say it? – upper class northeastern hunters. Bird shooting was socially acceptable; but there was something “wrong” with hunting large mammals– something not spoken of,  that was potent and hard to think about, never mind discuss. Easier to dismiss those who hunted big mammals as “poachers” or meat hunters, the last a pejorative…

This odd diffidence might exist because hunting large mammals was far more important to the evolution of our roving restless species than mere foraging, at least to what our species would become.* And because our larger quarry seemed– is-– more like us, killing and eating big sentient beasts is both more satisfying and more frightening– more “serious”.

In his own words: … I was unprepared for what I actually experienced. After field dressing the antelope, I looked down at my hands and said aloud in shock, “I have blood on my hands.” I didn’t have a clue what I meant: the spoken words simply came out of my mouth. I only knew that this recognition involved something altogether outside my previous bird shooting experiences, something mysteriously important/ I dreamed about blood again and again that night. I felt compelled to learn what this meant.

His quest led him to read every justification of hunting, every philosophical animal rights work, and a fair amount of biology and anthropology. Some of the more symbolic or poetic works seemed to hold far more truth than the “rational” and theoretically objective ones. He reads accounts of aboriginal tribes and discovers why “killing beautiful animals” may not be a sin. He teases the reader with a title like “Putting Animals in Their Place”, finding that their place is not where any of the defenders or enemies of hunting think they are. He discusses altered and enhanced states of mind in history and in the present. He combines the insights of these chapters to show us “ways” for us to see ourselves as interesting animals among other animals; then adds the insights of evolutionary biologists to the mix to show how science weaves still more threads into the pattern.

His penultimate chapter is not a simple synthesis (if there is anything simple about his synthesis!). It is called “After the Kill: Making Meat, Feasting, and Story Telling”. In this one he argues that the last sleepy farewells as the hunters and their families leave the table are as much a part of the hunt — I almost want to capitalize the word Hunt– as the stalk or the kill; it is one whole drama. With the next and last chapter, he brings his account to a close; necessary, but I am still at the table, swapping stories and savoring the last of the vodka.

This has been a hard review to write because I have been reading this book since the first drafts. What could I say that would be new? How about that our friend John Besse, the best amateur gunsmith I know a hunter and backwoodsman with a bias towards the scientific rather than the poetic, has read it twice?

Or I could just give you my very considered blurb: “Gerard Cox has always been a bird hunter. But when he saw the blood on his hands from his first antelope, he was so moved that he began his inquiry into the nature and realities of this “serious business” of hunting large mammals, so close to and yet so different from us. His resulting thoughts build into a volume rich in anecdote (and not without humor), covering everything from the esthetics of animals, through altered states of consciousness, to celebrating the pleasures of feasting with friends. A unique union of the philosophical and the earthily real, it will end up on your permanent bookshelf somewhere between Thomas McGuane and Ortega y Gasset. it is that good.”

Blood on My Hands is now available from Amazon in hardback, paper, and Kindle form, under his real name, Gerard H Cox. I would go for one of the dead trees editions; the cover is nice too.

 *Gerry has a discussion of how having female hunters expands our vision– biology is not destiny but human nature DOES exist– my not Gerry’s point.

Book Review #2: Rifle Looney News

John Barsness and Eileen Clarke seem like such normal people that is hard to realize at first just how unusual their “lifestyle” is. They are ubiquitous in the hunting and gun magazines, more so than any other couple I have known (I dare say I have known many of the sporting couples of my time). John writes technological piece in vivid and comprehensible English. He writes exotic hunting pieces, many of them on the big game of Africa, Europe, and Alaska, that make you feel that even a poor man might get to do these things.

Best of all, he writes of a life of hunting in his native Montana. As he once said to me, in a manner not entirely satirical, “I am a third generation Montanan… academic.” And though I believe that he ended up as I did studying biology, his first published material was a book of poetry. And his mentor in the woods and fields, before he met the old Lakota patriarch Ben Burshia, was the New York transplant Norm Strung.

Eileen’s history is even less likely. She came from New York and studied literature at Missoula. She was also a vegetarian. Needless to say, she got over that. I don’t think she and John ever eat any domestic meat ever, except possibly at restaurants. Furthermore, she has written some of the most important game cookbooks of our time, ones that can delight the sophisticate but explain everything to the rankest beginner. And she is this knowledgeable about everything. I think she is still the only published cook I know who puts enough fat in game sausage. 

They live the life of the hunt, also the title of one of John’s books. They may be the only writers of our generation who have made a decent living entirely as freelance sporting and culinary writers. As publishing changed, they decided that the best way to present and sell their work was by taking ownership and control of all of it, and publishing their own books. You can judge their success by going to their “Rifles and Recipes” website. It’s all there — all the books and cookbooks they have written since they started, and links to other things of note.

Around five years ago, they also started publishing a quarterly online newsletter, Rifle Loony News. At eight dollars for the year, it may be the best bargain in outdoor writing yet. Its eight pages contain some of the best and clearest- headed technical prose on rifles around, presented without the constraints of length that make all magazine writing difficult; all the more so these days, as so-called editors, searching for advertising space, shrink content to 500 word “essays”, captions, and bullet-point lists, all written by young staffers who would probably pay to be in print.

Generally John does most of the technicana, and Eileen the food. But don’t miss Eileen’s gun writing or either of their occasional story-telling. What it is exactly like is sitting down to a long fall dinner with both of them and somehow having a recording of what ensues. It’s too bad we don’t have an audio version, punctuated by Eileen’s whoops of laughter, which stepson Jackson used to claim kept him awake at night, and John’s dry interjections. He may have invented the genre of old-style outdoor writing we called “I knew an old dog who died”. I also remember telling them about how I shot a blue grouse off a limb when I was first dating Libby, at her… request. I opined that women were more pragmatic hunters than men (and perhaps more enthusiastic; when they first visited me more than twenty five years ago, in Magdalena, Eileen mimed her stalk of what I believe was her first pronghorn through a northern Serengeti of everything from mule deer and bison to sandhill cranes, with  prickly pear sticking into her hands).

John looked at this wife and said “Pragmatic? The first seven sage grouse she shot had skid marks on their breasts.” I believe that story is in there too.

So it’s fun, for sure; a hunting life lived 365 days a year. It will make you a better cook, and tell you of new products that are really useful rather than just pushed by marketers. As for rifles: John probably has 80 rifles wandering in and out at a time, though I bet fewer than 10 make his permanent list. He shoots constantly, and while he is the gentlest and most genial of men, he will neither praise crap nor take another’s opinion as truth without testing it for himself. If you read carefully, and are a typical modern hunter, he will save you a lot more than $8 a year while entertaining you in the process.

Rather than searching for quotes, I will give you Eileen’s account of last year’s first volume. “Year six started with Eileen’s feature on brining wild birds and venison (yes, it’s different from chicken and beef) and a to-die-for and easy-to-make Cookie Dough Truffles as well as John’s reports on laser range finders, the CZ Model 452 .17Hornaday Rimfire Magnum, ‘Guns I Don’t Buy Anymore’ and lots more.”

John also has another new book out, Modern Hunting Optics. I’ve hardly had a chance to open it in the chaos of the last two weeks, but I will say that it is the most up to date and comprehensible account of that ever-changing subject that I have seen yet. John also can’t resist debunking cliches. I always thought that the 25-yard sight-in worked, not that I actually did it. We who read more than do need John’s writing to admonish us for intellectual laziness.

It has 200 soft-cover pages and goes for $25 postpaid. Rifle Loony has 264 pages and a color insert as well as black and white illos; it goes for $28.95, media rate shipping. Both are sold exclusively through or from Deep Creek Press, PO Box 579, Townsend, MT 57644; telephone 406-521-0273.

John with Selous buff and CZ .416 which he bought in NM and modified to be like Harry Selby’s– one of his keepers I think…


Brad Watson, who was on at least one of the hunts below, has just gotten his story “Eykelboom” published in the New Yorker, and it is FINE haunting story. Is the New Yorker publishing better fiction recently? I say yes, from all sorts of odd and good writers– I know it is not northeastern- chauvinist anymore at least for contributors, but lately it has been on a roll. Now you can see (quite recently) Thomas McGuane with a strong if terrifying story, and people in translation you have not heard of– and Brad, an Alabaman (well, I think he was born in Mississippi) with good guns and several books all of which you should read (I took the liberty of linking to a favorite collection above), who loves food and teaches at Laramie and hangs out with scientists  and philosophers.

You should always check Bedlam Farm for updates in the carriage horse fight and other battles against AR fanatics. Relevant posts here and here and here and here and…

I want one of these.

A feathered lizard is still a lizard. Think BIRD!

Check out Hillmap, then go here to see it applied, in this instance for finding grouse. HT Lucas Machias.

Help Joan Didion.

Peter Matthiessen (and John Cole) were outdoor writers, if only as undergraduates. And shot not only crows, but raptors! Of course back then everybody did. (Pic from Jonathan Hanson).

A fine gun site from Russia. Great illos, many of things you don’t see here…

Mechanical Houbara??!! Interesting but I am not sure if I approve.